Even in New York City, the period after Christmas and New Years can be a downer. There isn’t much to look forward to until Spring, the weather typically stinks and it can be far too easy to catch a case of the blues unless you are careful. I felt fortunate for not falling victim because I was busy trying to figure out this acting career thing and planting myself more firmly into the soil of Manhattan. After giving Matty $75 for my half of the upcoming February rent, my little nest egg was down to under $400. That still seemed like a lot of money to me and I had absolutely no fear of running out. I was being frugal, monitoring expenses yet still doing fun things and acting as though I had lived my entire life in the Village. I seldom traveled any further north than 14th Street except for auditions, which were typically held either midtown in the Theatre District or on the upper westside.
I would rush out weekly to buy the latest copy of BACK STAGE, a newspaper listing ads for all the upcoming auditions. Most of the jobs were for dinner theatres. Some were for six weeks or so, many were dinner theatre tours for months at a time, traveling all over the country in some fairly dicey venues. I had already heard some incredible horror stories, but what a thrill it would be to actually get paid money to work acting on a stage no matter where it was. Just before the end of January, Matty was offered the role of The Boy in THE FANATASTICKS for a dinner theatre tour in the midwest. It was a mid-run replacement role, as the original actor had gotten a national tour for a big Broadway musical. Matty had only a few days notice before he’d have to leave. We were all excited for him.
Jacob was still in the city, having decided to stay and Matty asked me if I would mind if he moved in while he was touring. That way Jacob could share expenses with me (Con Edison and food) and Matty wouldn’t have to pay his half of the rent. It was at this point I first learned that technically, I was an illegal tenant. It made me a bit uneasy, but he assured me the landlord had no idea nor cared who lived in the building as long as he got his money every month. The super was in charge of two other buildings on the block and lived in one of them. Just to be on the safe side, he asked Jacob and me to give him the rent for March so he could prepay it before he left. He wasn’t sure how long he would be gone because there was a good chance the tour might be extended. Come April we would deal with April. So it was go from the end of January through March. It felt good knowing I wouldn’t have to worry about major expenses as my resources began to dwindle. Before he left, it was agreed that Matty would call us to check on the apartment and things back in the city every Monday evening at Ron’s apartment, one of the few people any of us knew with a telephone. He was a man who was fast becoming a good friend to me.
On the romantic front, I could say that Richard and I were beginning to cool off, but we had never heated up enough for that to be the case. I had suffered from unrequited love a few times before, but for good reason: either the guy didn’t feel the same for me, or he had someone else who he was already involved with. There were no impediments to prevent our relationship from growing as I knew it could, except for Richard himself. I was becoming so sexually frustrated it was like I was back in Ohio living in my parent’s house. Truth be told, I’d managed to have more sex there than I had in the liberated West Village at this point. I was horny; we hadn’t consummated this relationship, yet he was all I’d thought about since we’d met that first time in the fall. It wasn’t as though I was fighting off hoards of hot men who were chasing after me while I waited for some move from Richard. I simply was not interested in anybody else but him. It was one of those things you feel in your heart and your head and your gut and your loins.
“Give him time”, my new friend Ron advised me, “a decent guy isn’t easy to find in this city”. I valued his advice because he was a man nearing forty years old in a solid relationship with his partner of more than a decade, which seemed a lifetime in gay years to a novice like me. It felt so comfortable and warm being with Richard. At the bar or one of the cozy restaurants where we ate, he was always so attentive, instinctively taking my hand at quiet moments and putting his arm around me whenever we walked on the street. Yet he hesitated to go beyond our obligatory evening’s parting kiss and avoided being together much in anywhere but public places. I think he came to the apartment only a few times to pick me up. He lived and worked in the East Village as a cook in a Japanese restaurant . His wacky work schedule didn’t leave us much time to be together, and with me not working, I found myself with tons of free time alone to sit and stew about our situation.
One night he suggested we might stop in at Arthur’s Tavern, a small bar literally next door to Marie’s where they played live jazz. It had to be a Monday night, because The Grove Street Stompers were playing and it was a slice of another style of Village life I had never tasted before. Looking around I didn’t see any other gay faces in the crowd and we were definitely some of the youngest as well. We sat at the bar and the music awakened something in Richard that was visible on his face and the whole of his body. He grinned like a little kid, nodded his head to the beat and swayed to the smooth jazz sound.
Suddenly I realized he couldn’t possibly have enjoyed the brash, campy, over-the-top renditions of show tunes garishly sung at our bar next door. What in the world drew him there in the first place and why did he persist in returning? I remember posing the question to him during one of the band’s breaks. It came down to the comradeship and safety that the non-threatening gay scene afforded him. I understood, yet he certainly was comfortable here in a very ungay crowd, more himself it seemed than anytime I’d seen him before. I was having the best time enjoying the music and his company. I think it surprised him that it was possible for me to like something not directly connected with theatre. It was all I continually talked about and he would patiently listen to me go on about it, yet never tire of my monologues. “If you enjoyed this”, he said as we walked out the door later that night, “you’re going to love Mabel”.
Mabel was Miss Mabel Godwin, a singer-slash-piano player who was a fixture at Arthur’s on weekends. She knew all the jazz standards and naughty tunes too, Gershwin and Porter and songs I’d never heard of before. Underneath a shiny black wig and oversized thick glasses she was at least my mother’s age but you couldn’t tell when she was at her keyboard. Her delivery was smooth and sexy, singing about broken hearts and men who had done her wrong. I adored Mabel instantly. When she’d finished the song she’d been singing as we came in, she looked our way and said into her microphone “Good ta’ see ya’, Richie”. He smiled back. “Richie?” I thought to myself. This cool, old, black lady knows Richard by name. Man, I don’t know this guy at all! It was a quiet night and she chatted with us on and off, once we’d moved closer to the piano. I was mesmerized by Mabel’s style, her extensive repertoire and the level of performance she delivered as effortlessly as my Gramma turned out a meal in her kitchen. I was hooked.
Very shortly after that night, one rainy, dreary mid-winter afternoon, I somehow worked my way into Richard’s tiny studio apartment in the East Village. It was my first visit to this end of town and it was a very low rent district at that time. His studio was tinier than Matty’s, barely room for anything but his bed and some bookshelves and a table with a lamp in the corner. It wasn’t that I just showed up there one day; he invited me, though probably only to stop my incessant badgering to see his place.
And that afternoon, sometime, during or after my very first cup of Japanese green tea, it happened. I cannot remember how, but Richard and I finally ended up in his bed. The memory is the kind I call a movie scene remembrance, because when I recall that afternoon, it is as though I were viewing it through a camera lens and not my own mind’s eye. I see myself as well as Richard, the unmade bed, his dark room, the grey hazy light trying to filter through the small, dirt-streaked window. I see our naked bodies and his white-white hairless, boyish flesh entwined in mine. He was passionately intense and I remember we neither of us spoke a word. The only sound was a steady wind-driven winter rain pounding at the window and the two of us breathing. I have no idea what we said afterward. I know I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut about our relationship and just savored the moment and this enigmatic man who continually kept me wondering. We lay in his bed together until it began to get dark. I walked with him to his job and continued on back home, getting drenched, but unphased by the elements, relishing my long-awaited euphoria.
to be continued